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Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805 (Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 4) Hardcover – February 28, 1970
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Without question, this volume, rich in detail, perceptive and sensitive in analysis, and remarkably fair with the principal partisans, will be read for generations to come.(Chicago Tribune) --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
About the Author
At the time of his death late in 1986, Dumas Malone was acknowledged as the greatest scholar ever to study and write a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Born in Mississippi, educated at Emory and Yale, and a Marine Corps veteran of World War I, Malone was editor-in-chief of the scholarly"Dictionary of American Biography" and wrote a 15,000-word life of Jefferson as part of his editorial duties. From that first scholarly interest, Malone went on to write (between 1948 and 1981) a six-volume work, "Jefferson and His Time", that will long stand as the definitive biography of our third president.
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Top customer reviews
The six-volume series has been described as « a major achievement in the half-way house between history and biography ». Laudatory though this comment may be, it summarizes for me the major flaw of Malone's enterprise : its failure as biographical writing. Nowhere is this clearer than in this fourth volume, where Jefferson himself seems to recede in the background while the author retells the most tedious details of the workings of his administration, however unrelated to Jefferson himself.
The « un-biographical » character of the work is reinforced by its format : instead of following Jefferson chronologically, Malone has chosen to offer us a series of chapters organized around such themes as the executive appointments, Marbury vs. Madison or the Louisiana Purchase, thus imposing conventional textbook divisions on the organic flow of Jefferson's life. As a result, the « biography » reads as a series of historical essays, and certain important topics are relegated to the next volume. Nothing is said for instance about Jefferson's personal relation with Meriwether Lewis or his involvement in the preparations of the Lewis and Clarke expedition.
Perhaps even more regrettable is the general impression of Jefferson given by Malone as a relatively unintellectual man who had apparently done most of his reading in his youth and never bothered to systematize his thinking, being more concerned with his presidential duties, his social life and the occasional joys of the countryside.
Apart from a few interesting chapters, therefore, such as « The Religion of a Reasonable Man », and the welcome refutation of the Sally Hemings myth, this curious hybrid of a volume should be eschewed by those who seek a genuine understanding of Jefferson the man. To them, David Mayer's « The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson », and a good selection of Jefferson's own writings, should prove much more profitable reading.
The Jefferson idolatry is also unmistakably present in Malone's laughable attempts to dismiss what he snidely refers to as "The Miscegenation Legend" - Jefferson's postulated paternity of Sally Hemings' children. Contrary to popular belief, DNA testing has not proven Jefferson's paternity, only that there is a DNA match between Peter Jefferson's male line and the descendants of one of Sally Hemings' sons, which leaves open the possibility that Thomas Jefferson's brother Randolph or perhaps another close male relation was the father. The problem here is not that Malone takes the position against Jefferson's paternity but the vehemence, certitude, and contempt with which he discounts the opposing view as a scurrilous myth created by - who else? - Jefferson's contemporary political opponents and dishonestly propagated over time by abolitionists and modern-day civil rights activists for their own purposes. Never mind Jefferson's conspicuous silence in the face of the scandalous accusations, his documented presence at Monticello for each of Sally's conceptions, the much-remarked upon striking resemblance between the President and Sally's son Madison, Madison Hemings' claim that his mother told him Jefferson was his father, and Jefferson's special interest in Sally Hemings' brood, including noting the birth of each of her six children in his personal Account Book and freeing all the Hemings children from slavery - Malone cannot open his mind to even the possibility of Jefferson's paternity. Consequently, he abandons the role of historian for one of shameless apologist.
Beyond the Jefferson worship, the book is a fairly laborious read, though Malone's prose is thankfully not quite as verbose or dry as in the previous volumes, and the topical chapter organization is poor and creates a very muddled timeline for the reader.
These criticisms notwithstanding, the book is redeemed somewhat by its sheer scope and detail, with the chapters covering the Louisiana Purchase being of particular note for their depth. Those interested in Jefferson's early presidency will not find a more comprehensive treatise. It is a very tough slog, however, and the reader must remain ever vigilant to separate the factual from the author's biased commentaries. Whether the reward is worth the toll is questionable.
Jefferson is not worthy of our interest because of Sally Hemmings and because he kept slaves. Jefferson is great because of the Declaration of Independence and his fight for the rights of man. While it may have been hypocritical to preach liberty and keep slaves, it is doubtful that slavery ever would have been abolished if Jefferson had never gained the prominence that he did. This book and the others that follow show why we should continue to honor the public man even though his private side may have been wanting.